Jeff Jarvis on 'What would Google do?'

Door Maurits Martijn
9 mei 2009

Vrij Nederland needs Googlejuice

Media guru Jeff Jarvis, whose book What would Google do? is just out, gave Vrij Nederland a free consultation on how to escape the printed media crisis . 'Vrij Nederland still sees paper as its core activity? That means you live or die by paper. That’s not a good position to be in.'

Lees de Nederlandse versie

Foto: Wouter Vandenbrink Foto: Wouter Vandenbrink

'I often undertake the following thought experiment with editors-in-chief and publishers: imagine the day has arrived – as it soon will – when you shut down the printing presses for good. Where are you then? Vrij Nederland is a brand, with a value. What is this value when you no longer appear on paper?'

Jeff Jarvis takes the question seriously. I asked the 'überblogger', journalism professor and author of the book What would Google do?, for a free consultation. What should Vrij Nederland do to escape the life-or-death crisis facing the printed media?

Jarvis advises papers such as The New York Times and The Guardian, and the guru’s advice is probably worth more than an interview on four pages of dead trees. With the internet and Google, a whole new world has grown up. According to Jarvis, this means, for the media, that it is no longer all about the products they make – their 'content' – but, above all, about the digital networks they are part of. Jarvis describes a shift from the content economy – in which newspapers and magazines are the owners of articles, and sell these alongside advertisements – towards a link economy, in which content only acquires value if others link to it.

You can write the best article in the world, but if no one pays any attention to it, it is worth nothing. Newspapers and magazines can take an example from the company that best embodies this link economy: Google. What would Google do? (or WWGD), is the straight-talking title of Jarvis' book. This is the question he suggests every company should be asking itself, and it is also the theme of the speeches Jarvis has been giving at expensive congresses since the appearance of WWGD.

I spoke to him, sitting at a table outside café Westerliefde in Amsterdam, on the site of the Westergasfabriek complex, prior to his keynote speech at The Next Web Conference, an international symposium on the future of the internet. I tell Jarvis what kind of weekly Vrij Nederland is, and about the state of affairs at the publication. Then I ask for his advice.

Jarvis: 'Here in Europe, you still have some time. But not much. The printed media are searching high and low for quick solutions. But the fact is, they should have reinvented themselves fifteen or twenty years ago. For many, it is now too late. You just told me that Vrij Nederland doesn’t put everything online, and still sees paper as its core activity? That means you live or die by paper. That’s not a good position to be in. You need to re-determine your value. And I would say that, at Vrij Nederland, this value lies in a number of things. Clearly in the content. An editorial team made up of clever people who work, learn, analyse, report and put things into perspective. This is Vrij Nederland. Am I pronouncing it correctly, by the way?

Anyway, there is also a value you can’t see. This is the people around you. What knowledge do they have? Don’t underestimate them: they are also very clever. These are people that love Vrij Nederland, or hold the same things dear as the editors. The question is, how can you get at their wisdom? This is the essence of Google’s genius. Google has come up with a way to find out what the most relevant places on the internet are. How? By listening to us. They take on our knowledge by recording our links and our search behaviour. Vrij Nederland needs to get hold of the knowledge of the people around it, and create a community.'

Jarvis: 'Do you ever organise meetings for readers?'
Me: 'Very occasionally.'
Jarvis: 'You should do so more often. With lectures by readers. With ideas for articles from readers. Do the thought experiment about the day the printing presses stop with them. And get past the idea that you, as a medium, consist only of content. What is your actual value? Write down what Vrij Nederland is. This is where the answer lies.'

Alright, we determine our value. But that’s not all. In your book, you talk about creating online networks and platforms. How do we do this?
'What if you were to create a network of the best, cleverest bloggers in the Netherlands? Vrij Nederland could combine them and bring them together on your own website. You could link to them, and involve them in your content. Like a curator: you make the best of your network. You could do the same thing with websites you like. Establish a quality hallmark: "Vrij Nederland approves of this weblog". And then you could go further, for example by selling advertisements on these weblogs.'

Jarvis: 'What is your print run?'
Me: 'About fifty thousand a week.'
Jarvis: 'Mmm, you will have to retain every single one. You can’t afford to hire these good bloggers as staff, and maybe they wouldn’t even want that. So you have to ask yourself what you can offer them. I think Vrij Nederland can teach bloggers things, and can help them get better. You could promote these blogs and support them financially by selling advertisements. You won’t make them rich, but you will show them respect and offer your advertisers a service. As in, look: these are the best, smartest bloggers in the Netherlands. If Vrij Nederland can create such a network, you could suddenly have a hundred thousand readers.'

Me: 'A hundred thousand?'
Jarvis: 'By readers, I don’t necessarily mean readers on paper. But readers of the Vrij Nederland brand. You shouldn’t be too bothered by this. People read what they want to read. The question is, how can you help them. The more good relationships you have, the better you will be read.

In the old vision, a media brand was a magnet that attracted people. This is still more or less the case with Vrij Nederland. But there are limits to this. And you are reaching these limits today. A year ago, a young woman said in The New York Times: "If the news is so important, it’ll find me." And that’s how it is. You have to go where the people are.

Vrij Nederland could also disseminate its own content on the internet. That’s what they do at The Guardian. People can put content from The Guardian on their own site or blog. Naturally, they have to state the source and they have to become part of The Guardian’s advertising network. But that’s not a bad deal at all! As a blogger, I can use the articles from The Guardian, and I get some income too. At the same time, The Guardian is expanding. Imagine that Vrij Nederland were to collect the best bloggers and websites, distributed as its own articles across the internet; then you are a network. And you will grow.'

Should we distribute all our content for free, or should we have users pay?
'You could have people pay. The problem with this, is that you then reduce the size of your audience, and therefore your advertising potential. Free is easier. But the main reason for doing this is that you want your product to have Googlesap. This is the magic potion you drink when Google rates you higher because the world rates you higher. The more people link to you, and the more people refer to you, the higher you rise in the Google search results, whereby the number of clicks increases. The more clicks, the more Googlejuice.'

Okay, Googlesap. Got it. But the next question then is, how we make money. At present, there is still no good online income-generation model for the media.
'Yes, this is a lot more difficult, and it is a tremendous risk. But then, you are already in the thick of it. The market for printed media is going down. The great thing about online is that you can try things out and fail, and very quickly. Just like Google. Trial and error.'

That's easy for Google, with its billions, its infrastructure and power; it can afford to take a lot of risks. We can't do that. What you are proposing is pretty radical. Paper is still our core activity, and we only put a small amount of all our articles online.
'That approach is wrong, and you need to change it straight away. You are a magazine that writes from a particular perspective. I guess you also employ a number of columnists? Today’s reality is that there are a great many columnists. The days when having a printing press and a regular place on the newsagent’s shelf gave you a competitive advantage are over.

Today, everyone has a printing press: the internet. The fact is, the cost of printing your product is now a disadvantage. In reality, you are now printing mainly for those advertisers who still want to advertise. Sooner or later, Vrij Nederland will have to prepare for a world in which you no longer have a printed product. This may be difficult to imagine, but it is inevitable. It is a new system. I think it will give rise to a new form of journalism.'

Yes, a lot of people are saying that. This discussion often revolves around the role of journalism in society. What is this, in your opinion?
'Journalists define themselves by their means of production. You write for a magazine, so you have to deliver every week. This determines how you write your pieces and who you call. But if you forget that restriction for a moment: what is you job really about then?

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of social networking site Facebook, talks about "elegant organisation". Facebook helps communities to organise. I think the role of journalism is essentially the same: to organise what the community knows, so the community gets smarter, thereby giving a helping hand to democracy. Now, this organisation doesn’t always need the journalist. People are increasingly able to play this role themselves. Take Twitter: a few weeks ago, this was used to organise a revolt in Moldavia, because people were organising their information themselves, and took action on the basis of this.'

Our readers are generally not from the younger generations. Imagine we made such an online transition, would we lose a lot of readers?
Jarvis, indignant: 'I’m 54! And I do it. What's more, not everyone needs to be active. Look at the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia: approximately one percent of Wikipedia users actually write articles for Wikipedia. The same can be true of Vrij Nederland. If just a small percentage – the most committed or the best – contribute, you are already growing. And they can help you not only with the content, but also with the marketing. They have their own networks. In addition, pensioners can simply print an article out and read it, if they want to.'

Vrij Nederland writes about a broad range of themes. Should we specialise?
'Generally speaking, the internet demands specialisation. When I buy a magazine in the US – Time or Newsweek for example – I will always come across subjects I know nothing about. And that is good; but it doesn’t work like that online, where people find what they want to find. Most people find information through links and search engines. I don’t know the figures here, but only twenty percent of visitors to regional papers in the US ever see the homepage. We make all that effort to build attractive websites, and eighty percent never even see them! People search for specific subjects, and when doing this they chose the information with the most Googlejuice.
If I want to find something about the environment and the Netherlands, I will find the source that consistently covers this the best. The source with Googlejuice. Anyone who occasionally devotes attention to this won’t get read.'

That means therefore that we will have to specialise. With our limited resources, however, we won’t be able to score the most Googlejuice on all the themes we cover.
'Possibly, but the main thing is to start up a network. Then, for example, you can choose the weblog of a Dutch professor who knows a lot about the environment – perhaps more than your own journalists – and this will help you succeed in the Vrij Nederland network.'

And this will bring us more readers?
'Absolutely. This is where Googlesap comes into play. Every day, I search for people who are talking about me, my blog or my book. That might sound narcissistic, and it is, but it also stimulates conversation. Internet is not a one-way medium, it is a discussion.'

So we should be scouring the internet, looking for people who are talking about Vrij Nederland, our journalists or articles, and enter into discussion with them?
'Yes, of course!'

Isn’t that intrusive?
'No. Your science editor, for example, should read all the science blogs in the Netherlands and link the best of these to the VN site. They will then find out about this.'

'Because they are doing the same thing. They will see that VN has linked to them, or, better still, has commented on their articles or provided an answer to their question. VN has added value to the discussion. They will respond to this, and link back. Through your relationship with the blogger, his readers will discover your content. If you do it right, you will get new readers. Or, if the themes you discuss – for example, the environment and the Netherlands – have a lot of Googlesap, people looking for this topic will discover you first.'

And then?
'The public becomes your distributor. If your public loves you, is passionate about you, supports your new network, and Vrij Nederland makes really good things, people will talk about you. And then there is also Twitter...'

Jarvis picks up his iPhone and shows messages on the screen from 'micro-blogging' service Twitter. 'Do you twitter?'
Me: 'No.' (editorial update: see Maurits' brand new Twitter account)
Jarvis, with a sigh: 'Every journalist should twitter. This is a search assignment on Twitter. Here, I can search for everyone on Twitter who has referred to my book. Some like it, others hate it. A lot of people tell their friends that they are reading my book. They are in fact marketing my book. My audience is my advertising agency.'

Do you ever respond to these messages?
'Yes, I even did so this morning. Someone wrote that they think it’s a good book, and I twittered back: thank you.'

You are proposing nothing less than a revolution. Most people who have a say in printed media – publishers and editors-in-chief – have backgrounds in the old media reality, the content economy. Can they handle this revolution?

'Everyone can do it, without a doubt. The question is do they have the will. Until recently, I thought so. But many have a monopoly position and earn a great deal of money. They are scared of change and innovation. And for this reason, they have ruined it. Will the publishers and editors-in-chief undertake the essential changes? It’s possible. But it really has to happen now, and to be honest, I am sceptical.
It is sad that many newspapers and magazines will disappear. But there is good news too. We will see chaos and confusion. We will see bad guys who will get away with things, because of the lack of a regulator. And then the community will rise up and demand journalism. It is then up to journalists to fulfil this demand.'

Do you have a last piece of advice for them?
'Do what Google would do. Read my book.'

Jeff Jarvis, WWGD – What would Google do?, HarperCollins, 272 pag., € 24,99

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